Friday, April 15, 2005

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The cyberbalkanization of trivia?

Bryan Curtis has an interesting essay at Slate about the alleged decline and fall of Trivial Pursuit at the hands of the Internet. The closing two pragraphs:

How could Trivial Pursuit survive in the age of Google? The Internet has rewritten the rules of the game. The old measure of the trivia master was how many facts he could cram into his head. The new measure is how nimbly he can manipulate a search engine to call up the answer. The ABC show Who Wants To Be a Millionaire included a lifeline called "phone-a-friend," in which a desperate contestant was supposed to call upon the knowledge of a smart companion. Seconds after the contestant dialed for help, you could hear the guy on the other end pecking away at a keyboard—Googling—and I thought, This is it. Trivia is dead.

That's overstating it a little. Trivia lives; it's generalist trivia, the kind of fluency that Trivial Pursuit prized, that's ailing. Just as the Internet splintered trivia into thousands of niches, Trivial Pursuit has contented itself with turning out games like "90s Time Capsule" and "Book Lover's," and, more frighteningly, those devoted solely to the vagaries of Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Gone is the proud generalist of the original Trivial Pursuit, who knew the most common Russian surname (Ivanov) and the international radio code word for the letter O (Oscar). In his place is the specialist, who knows every inch of Return of the Jedi. There are many of us who have a nagging fear we belong to the latter group. "What jungle planet do Wookiees hail from?" a Star Wars card asks. Let's say, hypothetically and only for the sake of argument, that I know the answer. Who is supposed to be impressed by that?

This argument is akin to Cass Sunstein's "cyberbalkanization" hypothesis from The only problem is that Curtis contradicts his closing earlier in the piece by observing: "23 years after its American debut, the original [Genus] edition still accounts for a huge percentage of Trivial Pursuit's 80 million units sold." If memory serves, a Genus II edition was also pitched to the generalist. In fact, since most trivia games are played in person, the Internet's effect on this social institution is likely to be marginal.

posted by Dan on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM


Kashyyyk? I would be pretty impressed (concerned?) if just a random person knew the minutiae of Star Wars or whatever without access to the internet. Sports trivia is still alive and well even though there are thousands of reference books and online encyclopedias, and I suspect that Google isn't going to end non-sports trivia either.

posted by: carl on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

This is absurd. Who plays trivial pursuit and allows a PC to be used? Now if you wanted to make the more general argument that individuals gifted with good recall of diverse facts are less useful to society, thats a good point. If I, for some reason, am desperate to know the name of Robert E Lee's horse, i dont need to call my civil war buff buddy, I can find out for myself in less than a minute. But trivial pursuit? Isnt that like saying the automobile ruined the game of hide and seek?

posted by: Mark Buehner on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

I agree. I think Curtis's comments about google and trivia are insipid. If anything, google has multiplied the pleasure of trivia, it's aggregation into tiny bits of information cast about the internet. Curtis is correct about the decreasing "generalness" of trivia knowledge, but that's because of a different emphasis on the kind of knowledge that is prized. The Genus edition of TP had tons of questions about History and Art (and even Sports) that are simply not the focus of what is considered "trivia" now, which focuses on how many films starring Bill Pullman you can name or how many people dated Lindsey Lohan in the last 3 years. Pop Culture has in many ways supplanted this kind of generalist trivia knowledge, trivia itself has become trivialized.

posted by: Festus on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

I can tell you that at least one top US college, there are $1-card head-to-head games of Trivial Pursuit being played. Throw a little gambling in, and every game has new life.

posted by: cure on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

Jeopardy still seems to be doing quite well, and Ken Jennings still seems to be in demand.

posted by: fling93 on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

Appropo of nothing really, "Trivial Pursuit", if it indeed is an American "institution" was ironically invented by two Canadians (see:)

Oh, and there are many other similar examples (John Naismith, inventor of basketball is one of my favorites: "you mean he's not American?").

Love to shock Americans. MM

posted by: Mike on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

The other factor that isn't really addressed in the article is that trivia designers adapt. They can write trivia that Google isn't very good at researching, trivia that will require something a little more specific than Google, or trivia that doesn't give you anything to type into Google. They can create trivia where Google's answer isn't the whole answer, trivia that doesn't ask a question, and trivia that expects you to use Google and will still be difficult. They can just ask you to play by the rules and punish as they see those rules broken.

Not all of these approaches explicitly require generalist knowledge, but when you don't know exactly what specialist knowledge will be required, generalist knowledge is invariably helpful in finding a path to the answer. And with the increasing number of possible specializations, a generalist with a weak specialization provides a team with better odds than several strong specialists. What the Internet has increased the value of is specialist knowledge of how to use (and when necessary, transcend) Google.

Finally, trivia writers can not worry about Google and figure you'll enjoy it anyway. (These last two are less to make my point (the second barely qualifies as trivia) and more for Drezner ;))

posted by: Scott on 04.15.05 at 12:00 AM [permalink]

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